April 20, 2018

What Broadband Infrastructure’s Got to Do with Educational Equity

By Hannah Erickson

In conversations about opportunity gaps, I very rarely hear about one tool that has become increasingly critical to student success, and yet remains out of reach for too many of my peers: reliable access to the internet. In my community in rural Minnesota, my classmates and I too often fall behind in school due to the inaccessibility of high-speed internet at home. With 70 percent of America’s teachers assigning homework that must be completed online, and a variety of other resources and opportunities limited to those with internet access, it’s time for our policymakers to see broadband infrastructure as the educational urgency that it is. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that an internet connection has become as necessary to our education as pen and paper.

THE PROBLEM

At my school, for example, there are over forty classes that are exclusively offered online. Of course, my peers without access to an internet connection at home have expressed feeling left out, and have been unable to take classes that interest them and that should be available to them. Even in classes that aren’t offered exclusively online, teachers sometimes require students to use purely digital textbooks. This leaves too many students without access to the resources necessary to complete their regular classwork.

This isn’t just an issue in Greater Minnesota. Across the country and state, students from low-income households are less likely to have access to reliable internet. A 2016 report, for example, found that, although most low- and moderate-income families have some access to internet at home, lower-income families are under-connected. For example, 23 percent of families below the median income level and 33 percent of those below the poverty level rely on mobile-only internet access. Five percent have no access at all. A 2017 study estimates that 6.5 million students—or about 6 percent of the nation’s students—don’t have affordable, reliable access to internet.

I used to be one of these students. I regularly fell behind in personal projects and classwork due to not having access to a stable connection. Without steady internet at home, what should have been simple tasks—like attending biweekly telepresence meetings biweekly and keeping up with classwork—were a real challenge. Many services I needed to use were too bandwidth-intensive for my connection at home, and this made getting work done impossible. To call this situation frustrating would be an understatement.

THE SOLUTION

But, the situation was also fixable. Once I had access to broadband connection, I could easily and consistently access resources to succeed in school. My peers in Greater Minnesota and across the state deserve to have this same access.

Technology should be an asset to education, not a barrier. Growing up toward the end of an explosion of technology (the first iPhone was released when I was four years old), I’ve come to rely on the instant feedback and information that I can get from a steady, high-speed connection. Group projects and collaborative efforts are streamlined through digital tools. Answers to literally any question are at our fingertips. To keep up with the fast-paced atmosphere of the classroom, higher education, and eventually the workforce, stable access to and familiarity with the internet is becoming mandatory. Without a steady connection, too many students are not getting a fair shot at the education and skills they deserve and, frankly, need.

Every student should have an equal opportunity to pursue their education to the fullest and be equipped with tools necessary to do so. Additional funding for broadband infrastructure would aid in leveling the playing field and help close the educational opportunity gap between those of us who have access to broadband, and those of us who don’t. That’s why I support HF 3527, a bill our state legislators are now considering which would appropriate $51 million to supplement the cost to expand broadband infrastructure across the state. I hope you will, too.

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